Here’s a word to Apple (AAPL:US)’s patent lawyers: Trust me, no one will mistake the stylus-based Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet for an iPad. Which is actually too bad for would-be buyers, because the new Note doesn’t measure up to the competition.
The tablet builds on Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5.3, a similarly stylus-equipped smartphone that came out earlier this year and provides a certain level of geeky fun on a five-inch screen.
Something about its size, and the fact that as a phone it’s always with you, seems to encourage a grab-and-go spontaneity that’s missing from the tablet version. The Galaxy Note 10.1 offers a lot more screen, but a lot less fun.
Unlike its smaller cousin, the 10.1 is a Wi-Fi-only device. There’s no option to connect over a cellular network, as you can with the phone or with the AT&T (T:US) or Verizon (VZ:US) Wireless versions of the iPad. It starts at $500 for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage, the same as a Wi-Fi iPad.
At 0.35 of an inch thick and 1.31 pounds, the Galaxy Note is a smidgen thinner and lighter than the iPad. But the way Samsung achieves its advantage is by making the tablet seem plasticky and cut-rate.
Not only can you actually feel the back flex when you push on it, which raises some questions about its durability, but there’s even a visible distortion on the screen where your finger is pressing. I’ve never seen that on a tablet before.
The Galaxy Note also skimps on the screen, which is usually among the strongest selling points for any Samsung (005930) device. (Just check out the dazzling display on, say, Samsung’s Galaxy S III smartphones.)
The tablet’s 1280 by 800 resolution means its picture is made up of a little over a million pixels. That sounds like a lot -- until you realize that the Retina Display on the iPad packs more than three million pixels into a similar amount of real estate.
There isn’t anything hugely wrong with the screen: Movies and photos look all right. But in an area where Samsung products normally excel, it’s just pedestrian.
The Galaxy Note’s most distinguishing characteristic is, of course, the stylus, which Samsung calls an S Pen. It hides so well in a corner of the tablet that there’s a sticker on the back to show you where to find it. Just keep close track of it: A replacement costs $40.
Remove the pen, and a menu automatically pops up showing the pre-loaded apps that take advantage of it. These include Samsung’s S Note, which lets you draw pictures and offers some iffy handwriting recognition, and Adobe (ADBE:US)’s Photoshop Touch editing software.
The Galaxy Note runs “Ice Cream Sandwich,” the next-to- newest version of Google (GOOG:US)’s operating system, on top of which Samsung has added its own interface and features.
Some of its tweaks are useful, like the ability to split the screen to show some apps running side by side. I was able, for instance, to display a Microsoft (MSFT:US) Word-compatible document in the included Polaris Office app right next to the e-mail client, and drag content from one to the other.
Other Samsung-specific enhancements are more questionable, like the extra software button added to the standard Android navigation that snaps a screenshot. It’s handy when you want to grab a picture of a web page so you can annotate it with the stylus; you can also permanently capture that masterpiece you doodled. But I sometimes found myself hitting it by accident when I was going for one of the neighboring, far-more-often- useful Android controls.
The Galaxy Note has some nice touches. It has a pair of speakers, as opposed to the single one on the iPad, and they fire forward rather than downward. The result is audio that, if it isn’t very loud, is recognizably stereo and of better quality than you’ll find on many other tablets.
A microSD slot allows you to expand storage capacity. And an infrared blaster lets the tablet double as a television remote control; Samsung includes the Peel app, which learns your viewing habits and suggests video content you might enjoy. On the other hand, you won’t find its battery life coming close to the iPad’s.
The late Steve Jobs famously detested the idea of using a stylus. But if your heart really yearns for one, you still might be better off buying an iPad and paying extra for an add-on pen.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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